Review: Stile Antico

April 6, Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Stile Antico, the acclaimed British vocal ensemble, offered Richmonders one of the first live performances of its new sampler of early music, “Queen of Muses,” surveying sacred and secular works composed for Elizabeth I of England.

As several members of the group observed in introductory remarks, Elizabeth was a demanding customer for music, being a musician herself and a monarch who, even more than most crowned heads, doted on flattery. That latter expectation was reflected mostly in the choices of celebratory or yearning texts in romantic songs and madrigals, although she clearly wasn’t averse to religious pieces that had God smiling on the queen and her realm.

The program alternated between sacred and secular pieces, about half sung by the full ensemble of 12 voices, the rest by groups of four to six, giving the program a welcome variety of moods and sound textures.

Helpfully, given the tricky resonance of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, most pieces were at medium-to-slow tempos, enabling the group to avoid the tonal congestion that can occur when faster pieces are performed in this space. (That hazard was audible in the opening selection, William Byrd’s “The sweet and merry month of May.”)

The program was not entirely English or English-accented, thanks to the inclusion of works by Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian who lived and worked in Elizabeth’s court (and may have combined his musical duties with espionage), and selections from the Winchester Partbooks, a collection of pieces commissioned from continental European composers by one of the queen’s most persistent and frustrated suitors, Erik XIV of Sweden.

The Italiante polyphony of Ferrabosco’s “Ad Dominum cum tribularer” contrasted nicely with the more austere texture of Thomas Tallis’ “Absterge Domine.” Tallis’ echoes of medieval style, in turn, contrasted with the more florid style of his student, Byrd, in “Attolite portas.”

Byrd, the greatest English composer of Elizabeth’s time, also had to be the most circumspect, being a Catholic in a Protestant court. His “Ne irascaris,” written for private worship, reads and sounds very much like a commentary on Protestantism, and as such must be among his most daring compositions. (Did his queen or her courtiers ever hear it?)

The Latin religious selections obviously fit this venue better than odes to romantic love, and had the additional advantage of skirting the sonic language barrier. Had lyrics not been included in the program book, it’s doubtful that many in the audience would have understood the texts of the secular pieces, especially the richly voiced madrigals, and so would missed some of the clever musical effects underlining words and phrases.

Stile Antico has won many critical plaudits for the refinement of its performances. That certainly was in evidence here; but so, refreshingly, was a more rustic quality, especially in low male voices, that lent authenticity to Pierre Sandrin’s “Doulce memoire” (one of the hit tunes of the Renaissance), Adrian Willaert’s raucous “Vecchie letrose” and John Dowland’s “Now I needs must part,” a strophic song that, in this rendition, sounded like vestigal Euro-pop.